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Steep Holm

Paeonia mascula on Steep Holm

Steep Holm © Martin Page The island of Steep Holm lies in the middle of the Bristol Channel, five miles west of Weston-Super-Mare, a seaside resort in the South West of England. The island is the only location in Britain where wild peonies can be found growing. The island is made of Carboniferous Limestone and measures approximately 0.5 miles (1 kilometre) long by 0.25 miles (0.5 kilometres) wide.

'The Male Peony' (P. mascula ssp. mascula), was first recorded as growing on the island in 1803.

Many people have asked why it wasn't found before. The first botanists to visit the island appear to have been Sir Joseph Banks and John Lightfoot on 3rd July 1773. The only record of their visit consists of a short hand-written manuscript, which is preserved in the Natural History Museum in London.
The Eastern Landing Point at Steep Holm © Martin Page

'Journal of a Botanical Excursion in Wales in this year 1775'

John Lightfoot's 1773 manuscript, transcribed by S. Bacstrom.

In 1773 Sir Joseph Banks and John Lightfoot spent seven weeks travelling around Wales with three colleagues. To the best of our knowledge Banks did not keep a diary of his trip. The only surviving record consists of a short hand-written manuscript, which now resides in the 'Banks Collection' at the Natural History Museum, in London. The date of 1775 was an error, but it has led many people to believe that the two botanists made separate visits, which is not the case. They left on Friday 25th June and returned to London on Monday 16th August 1773.

The following is a complete transcript of the part of the document that refers to Flat Holm and Steep Holm: -

Saturday July 3

"In the island called the flat Holmes found the following plants. Allium ampeloprasum near the landing place. Geranium maritimum all over the island in great plenty. Cochlearia danica upon the rocks on the North Side of the island. Ophrys apifera. Crithmum maritimum upon the rocks abundantly Poa colicaea Huds (sic). Upon the Steep Holmes the following: - Smyrnium olusatrum and Ligustrum vulgare are the predominant plants upon the top of the island, which totally cover it. A little of the Conium maculatum is mixed with it. Upon the rocks on the south side grow Inula crithmoides, Crithmum maritimum, Statice limonium, Asplenium marinum; Lavatera arborea in inaccessible places near the top of the rocks. Allium ampeloprasum: near the stone gateway at the landing place. Euphorbia lathyris: Mr. Banks found one plant of it upon the island. Geranium maritimum not so plentifully as at the Flat Holmes. Cystus polifolius upon the top of a peninsula called bream Down, a mile from Uphill in Sommersetshire, facing south west, at this time in full flower. This Down is about 2 miles from the Steep Holmes."

In the original manuscript the generic names are included in the text, while the specific are listed in the left hand column.

Paeonia mascula © Martin Page

The majority of floras treat this peony as a naturalised species and the general consensus amongst botanists has always been that monks introduced it to the island, probably during the 12th Century. P. mascula was certainly used as medicinal plant during the middle ages and it would seem logical to suggest that it was introduced for this purpose. The majority of the peonies on Steep Holm have always grown in the vicinity of the medieval priory, but it must be pointed out that the cliffs provide a habitat, which is remarkably similar to that of several Mediterranean islands, where peonies are known to be native. In fact the most common habitat for European peonies appears to be open, rocky limestone slopes, covered with scrub or diffuse woodland.

But the question has to be asked - why should P. mascula ssp. mascula only be found on Steep Holm?

Many plants have been driven to extinction by over collection and if the peonies were considered to have a medicinal function they could, over the centuries, have been eradicated from their other locations on the mainland. There is a particularly interesting record of P. mascula being collected from a wood in Gloucestershire during the 17th Century:

"Paeonia mas vera found in Stankham wood, about halfe a mile from Winscham in Gloucestershire, by Frans. Collins, who took up many of the roots and sold them to the Apothecaries of London, and left some of the small roots to grow againe, and sowed of the seeds he then gathered in the same place." Extracted from Manuscript in W. Pamplin’s copy of Ray’s Catalogus Plantarum Angliae, and thought to have been written by a contemporary of Ray (1627-1705). Phyt., IV, 745 (1852).


We hope to be able to organise a visit to the island in the spring, to see the peonies in flower.

We made an attempt in 2004, but the trust which owns the island and which provides access was having problems with its boat. It was indicated that there might be a better chance the following year.

In previous years there have been concerns that the peonies were suffering from botrytis due to overcrowding by wild sown sycamores, and the incursions of the Wild Leek (which is an endangered species). The trust is now aware of the importance of the peonies and has designated some areas where they will be preserved.

If you have visited the island in the past and have your own views about the origin of the peonies, we would be interested to hear from you. Further information about Steep Holm can be found on The Kenneth Allsop Trust’s web page

There is a very good book about the island. Stan and Joan Rendell, who have an encyclopaedic knowledge about this fascinating island, wrote ‘Steep Holm - The Story of a Small Island’. It is published by Sutton Publishing and costs £9.99. The ISBN number is 0 7509 0323 6.

Created on 2004-10-30 20:54:29 by nigel
Updated on 2004-10-30 21:37:20 by nigel
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